Reference Entry


Kathleen E. Bethel

in Black Women in America, Second Edition

Published in print January 2005 | ISBN: 9780195156775

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African American women librarians and others on library staffs have strived to provide excellence in assistance and quality information resources to the communities they have served. Black women librarians have attempted to counter the negative attitudes found outside and within libraries by creating places to locate information on terms shaped by black library workers. In doing so, these women have made great contributions to the library and information literacy of the race.Early HistoryThe early tradition of library service by black women may have begun with school materials, Sunday school collections, and the work of early female literary societies. The Sunday schools were the only schools for black children and provided secular as well as religious education. New York City's Sunday schools were inaugurated in 1803 for the poorest residents, white and black girls. In 1816, Quakers in Wilmington, Delaware, founded a school and library for the education of free African Americans.African Americans were prohibited from using local public libraries; therefore, they formed their own cultural and educational societies. Free black women and men organized and maintained circulating collections of books, periodicals, and newspapers for intellectual and moral improvement. Among the organizations fulfilling that purpose were the Reading Room Society, established in Philadelphia in 1828; the New York African Clarkson Society, founded in 1829; and the New York Philomathean Society, founded in 1830. Similarly, the Philadelphia Library Company of Colored Persons was established in 1832 as a literary society and incorporated in 1836. By 1838, the library contained six hundred volumes., Cosmopolitan Branch, c. 1930s. The librarian is showing the card catalog to the children; the sign on the shelf reads “Young People's Collection.” Denver Public LibraryFree black women in Philadelphia organized the Female Literary Association in 1831 and Minerva Literary Association in 1834. The Female Literary Association's membership consisted of black women who believed they had to overcome the general prejudice against their people through self-education with the assistance of a librarian. The eighth article of the Association's constitution stated, “The librarian shall have charge of all books belonging to the Association, and after each meeting, take care that they be placed in the Library.”Professional Education and ContributionsJessie Carney Smith's historical survey, Black Academic Libraries and Research Collections, notes that “the early history of black academic libraries is frequently unavailable because early record-keeping practices were poor or because records were destroyed during the passing years.” Smith asserts that the oldest of these libraries was founded at Virginia Union University in 1865, the year in which the university was established.More than fifty years later, Thomas Fountain Blue, Kentucky's first black librarian, began to train blacks at the Western Colored Branch of the Louisville Free Public Library. During its operation from 1912 to 1931, forty-one women completed the program. The American Library Association (ALA) used Blue's school as a model for the first ALA accredited library science school for African Americans, which opened at Hampton Institute (Virginia), later Hampton University, in 1925. Florence Rising Curtis served as director of the Hampton school that graduated 183 librarians with bachelor of science degrees during the fourteen years of its operation.The North Carolina College for Negroes, later North Carolina Central University, began offering courses in school librarianship in 1935, and Eloise Ward Phelps became the first full-time teacher of Library Science in 1938. The following year, Mary Peacock Douglas, library supervisor for the North Carolina State Department of Public Instruction, organized a program for school librarians. The School of Library Science began as a professional program in 1941 and was accredited by the ALA in 1975.The Atlanta University School of Library Service opened in 1941 with Eliza Atkins Gleason as dean. The school held a six-day conference for ninety-seven black public librarians in 1947, and that began a tradition of convening black librarians. From its beginning until the announcement of its closing in 2003, Virginia Lacy Jones (1912–1984) was responsible for the education of more African American librarians than was any other individual during her tenure as dean of the Library School at Atlanta University.A later degree program in librarianship began in 1969 when Alabama A&M University initiated its program for African Americans in the School of Library Media.Black Women ProfessionalsBelle da Costa Greener (1870–1950), a librarian and confidante of the financier J. P. Morgan, was director of the famed Pierpont Morgan Library in New York City from 1905 to 1948. Trained at Princeton University Library, she headed one of the world's finest research collections.The publications The Black Librarian in America, The Black Librarian in America Revisited, The Black Librarian in the Southeast, and The Handbook of Black Librarianship provide details about the achievements and contributions of hundreds of black women librarians who ensured access to library resources across geographical regions.Among the earliest librarians to receive professional training was Virginia Proctor Powell Florence, who earned a degree from Pittsburgh's Carnegie Library School in 1923.Dorothy B. Porter Wesley (1905–1995) was also a pioneer, in that she was the first African American woman to receive a master's degree in Library Science from Columbia University, in 1932. Wesley began work as curator ofthe Moorland Foundation and later the Moorland-Spingarn Collection at Howard University in 1930. During a career at Howard that spanned forty-three years, she attracted numerous donors, developed the library and manuscript collections, and authored numerous books.Eliza Atkins Gleason was the first African American to earn a PhD in librarianship from the University of Chicago. In 1940, she completed her dissertation, “The Government and Administration of Public Library Service to Negroes in the South.” Virginia Lacy Jones followed Gleason and became the second African American to earn a doctorate in librarianship from the University of Chicago.No less committed to library service than Gleason and Jones was Susan Dart Butler (1888–1959), who provided library assistance to blacks in Charleston, South Carolina. Trained in library science at Hampton Institute in the summer of 1932, she housed her family's library in the Charleston Industrial Normal Institute, founded by her father, John L. Dart, a distinguished educator and leading minister in the city. Butler facilitated grants from the Rosenwald Fund and the Carnegie Corporation to finance library service while serving as librarian of the Dart Hall Branch Library for twenty-six years.Several well-known librarians worked and made their homes in New York City. Among them was Sadie Peterson Delaney (1889–1959), who received library training at the New York Public Library. In 1919, she began work at the 135th Street Branch, a focal point of the Harlem Renaissance. Delaney built a Negroana Collection that was enhanced by the collections of Arthur Schomburg. In 1923, Delaney organized the library at the Veterans Hospital in Tuskegee, Alabama. Active in professional associations, she helped to advance the field of bibliotherapy, a great contribution to the profession.Catherine Allen Latimer, hired by the New York Public Library in 1920, also worked at the 135th Street Branch. Latimer conscientiously kept a file of clippings on black history and set up a small collection of books dealing with the subject. Soon, other black librarians were assigned to the branch. Among them was Roberta Bosely, a cousin of the poet Countee Cullen, who was in charge of children's services, while Regina Anderson, whose apartment was a frequent meeting place for Harlem Renaissance writers and artists, set aside a small work area for them in the library. Langston Hughes, Eric Walrond, and Claude McKay were among its users.Jean Blackwell Hutson (1914–1998), another librarian in the New York Public Library system, attended the University of Michigan, Barnard College, the New School for Social Research and in 1936 received a Master of Library Science degree from Columbia University. Between 1949 and 1980, she served as curator and chief of New York's Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, where she helped build the premiere collection on black life and culture.Black women librarians distinguished themselves in a number of midwestern and western metropolitan areas as well. In 1927, Mariam Matthews became the first black professional librarian in the Los Angeles Library System, and Vivian Harsh (1890–1960), who began working for the Chicago Public Library in 1909, became its first black librarian in 1924, and the first black woman to head a Chicago Public Library branch in 1932. With a Rosenwald grant, Harsh built an outstanding collection, later named in her honor, by and about blacks. She also instituted public forums featuring noted black authors. Doris E. Saunders began her career in the Chicago Public Library System in 1942 and seven years later became the first librarian at Johnson Publishing Company. She established the Johnson Publishing Company Book Division in 1961. Clara Stanton Jones was the first black and the first woman appointed director of the Detroit Public Library. In 1976 she was elected president of ALA, the first black librarian to win the office. By 1984 Mary F. Lennox had become the first black dean of the library school at the University of Missouri-Columbia, and in 1986 Monteria Hightower was named Missouri's first black state librarian.Black women across the South also moved into leadership positions within their field. For example, Jessie Carney Smith, recipient of a PhD in Library Science at the University of Illinois, was university librarian and professor at Fisk University in the 1960s. She lectured widely on the process of developing black collections, collecting black memorabilia, and studying genealogy. Carney's publications include Black Academic Libraries and Research Collections: An Historical Survey, Ethnic Genealogy, Images of Blacks in American Culture, and Notable Black American Women. Carney's colleague at Fisk University, Ann Allen Shockley, organized the school's Black Oral History program in 1970. Shockley was a noted author, journalist, librarian, feminist, and political activist. In the meantime, Doris Hargrett Clack (1928–1995), professor at Florida State University's library school, advocated improvements in the vocabulary and classification schemes used to access information on the black experience. Finally, Ella Gaines Yates was the first black director of the Atlanta Public Library (1976) and the first black appointed Virginia state librarian and archivist (1986).Other librarians with a special expertise in children's libraries included Augusta Baker, New York Public Library; Mollie Houston Lee, Raleigh, North Carolina, Public Library; Effie Lee Morris, San Francisco Public Library; and Charlemae Rollins, Chicago Public Library. These women removed books that negatively depicted African American characters. Baker, New York's first black administrator, built a landmark collection of children's literature. Her 1957 bibliography of the collection, Books about Negro Life for Children, was well used by the profession. Lee, the first black to receive a scholarship to Columbia's library school, forged Raleigh's first library for blacks in 1935. Morris was the first coordinator of children's services for the San Francisco Public Library. Rollins, a specialist in children's literature, lectured and wrote many children's books.Achievements and HonorsLibrarians who were the first black women elected to preside over state, regional, or national library associations included Rebecca Bingham (Kentucky, 1971), Estelle M. Black (Illinois, 1990), Alma Jacobs (Pacific Northwest, 1957; Montana, 1960), Barbara Williams Jenkins (South Carolina, 1986), Gleniece Robinson (Texas, 1998), and Lucille C. Thomas (New York, 1977). Rebecca Bingham served on the 1979 White House Conference on Library and Information Services, and in 1998 she was named to the National Commission on Libraries and Information Science.Effie Lee Morris was the first black president of the Public Library Association (1971), and in 1975, Louise Giles became the first black president of the Association of College and Research Libraries (ACRL). The following year, Jessie Carney Smith was elected the first black president of Beta Phi Mu, the international library science honor society. In 1976 Virginia Lacy Jones was the first black elected president of the Association of American Library Schools, and in 1973, she was the first black woman to receive the Melville Dewey Medal. Additionally, in 1978, Vivian Davidson Hewitt became the Special Libraries Association's first black elected president. Althea Jenkins was appointed the first black director of ACRL in 1991. ALA bestowed its highest accolade, Honorary Memberships, upon Charlemae Rollins (1972), Augusta Baker (1975), Virginia Lacy Jones (1976), Clara Stanton Jones (1983), and Lucille Cole Thomas (2003).This discussion of African American women who are school, public, academic, and special librarians and whohave served as administrators, association leaders, archivists, authors, bibliographers, catalogers, curators, deans, information technology specialists, library educators, and advocates for black librarianship ends during the term of ALA president Carla D. Hayden, director of the Enoch Pratt Free Library in Baltimore. Hayden was the second black woman elected to lead the world's largest professional library organization. Hayden's presidential platform, with its focus on equity of access to library and information services, continued in the long tradition of black librarianship.

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Subjects: History

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